Music Director To Be, Mäkelä Turns Chicago Into A Rocking Scene

Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä made his first appearance as music director designate of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Todd Rosenberg photos)

CHICAGO — The adage “age is only a number” is usually invoked as a gentle passport to the golden years, but the phrase never bore greater verity than in its application to Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä, who at age 28 looks like a sure bet to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra into yet another golden age. In his first concert with the Chicagoans since taking up the baton as music director designate, in a relay that goes back through Riccardo Muti and Georg Solti to Fritz Reiner, Mäkelä led a performance of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony that captured not only the work’s daunting power, its grind and chaos, but also its core digressions into tragic quietude.

The concert April 4 at Orchestra Hall came just two days after Mäkelä was named Muti’s successor effective in September 2027, when he also becomes chief conductor of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. How will he manage both? Two factors suggest no problem: his youthful energy, of course, but beyond that a comprehensive, indeed wondrous, musicianship that conjures what it must have been like to observe Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Mozart in their prodigious and seemingly effortless brilliance.

This was the third time I’d heard the Chicago Symphony under Mäkelä over the last three seasons, the Shostakovich having been preceded first by Stravinksky’s complete ballet The Firebird and then Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. What those three experiences held in common was, let’s say, the invisibility of the conductor’s youth. On the podium, Mäkelä conveys absolute authority — but more than that, conviction and directness, perception and singularity. He is very much his own man.

Mäkelä summoned the overwhelming power of the Chicago Symphony brasses, as well as the finesse of its strings.

His gripping account of the Shostakovich Tenth was exemplary. It flew by, this tumultuous 55-minute epic, an echo of Stalinist Russian written in strife and terror and sadness. Though begun in the late 1940s, the Tenth Symphony was substantially composed in 1953, the year Stalin died. The opening movement wells up from the depths of double basses and cellos before its charged narrative explores the emotional byways of angst, upheaval, and consoling solitude. Reveling in the palette of a virtuosic orchestra that is now his to paint with, Mäkelä summoned the overwhelming power of the CSO brasses, the subtle infections of woodwinds — notably the three principals clarinet Stephen Williamson, flute Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, and oboe William Welter — and, not least, the fine gradients of string sound top to bottom.

The sheer madness of the second-movement scherzo gave way to the heart of the symphony, a movement whose rigorous psychological complexity bears the simple heading Allegretto but really needs one of Mahler’s elaborate German superscriptions. Here was Mäkelä at his most revealing, which is to say his most convincing and auspicious, shaping with a light touch, allowing this venerable ensemble to just play. Heady, thrilling stuff, setting up a finale that blazed. 

By the time the band gets to the concert stage, everybody’s on the same whipping pages, flying together.

Mäkelä never over-conducts, never draws lines with a Sharpie for an orchestra that gets it from the get-go. Sometimes the baton drops to his side. But he never takes his eyes off the orchestra. He may turn score pages two at a time. Here, as in the previous Stravinsky and Mahler, he knew the Shostakovich cold. Unfailingly, by the time the band gets to the concert stage, everybody’s on the same whipping pages, flying together.

The Shostakovich Tenth rocked the house, but the house was rocking from the moment the CSO’s new music director appeared from the wings. The packed audience was instantly on its feet, cheering, whooping. Mäkelä barely acknowledged that crazy reception, but turned to the orchestra and commenced his curtain-raiser, a vibrant, shining, and piquant little essay called Batteria by the conductor’s Finnish countryman Sauli Zinovjev.

Mäkelä and Sol Gabetta after their Shostakovich of fierce concentration and excruciating intimacy.

What followed might have sent the crowd home feeling well compensated for the ticket price, even without the big symphony to come: Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 with soloist Sol Gabetta in a performance that melded disarming potency with breathtaking finesse. With a fierce concentration to match Mäkelä’s, the Argentine cellist pulled the listener into a work of excruciating intimacy. Even the withering collaboration between cellist and orchestra was eclipsed by Gabetta’s galvanic turn through the concerto’s expansive cadenza, a veritable Shakespearean soliloquy, at once spacious and precise, not so much questioning as fraught, less Hamlet than Lear.

First and last, the mood at Orchestra Hall was positively giddy. The Chicago Symphony and its audience finally had their new guy — young, brilliant, electrifying. There has been some carping from afar, mostly about the wisdom of handing over these two great orchestras, Chicago and the Concertgebouw, to anyone 28 years old. Those quibbles were summed up in one particularly insightful aspersion cast upon this union, that Mäkelä is “a work in progress.” Well, yes. And may that be said of us all.